March 8, 2018

The Last Man Standing in a Doomed Buffalo Housing Complex

This story first appeared on CityLab on January 12, 2018. Find the original here.

Any minute now, John Schmidt expects to be removed from his apartment by U.S. Marshals.

Schmidt lives in Buffalo’s Shoreline apartments, an affordable housing complex behind City Hall. Designed by the legendary modernist architect Paul Rudolph and built in 1974, Shoreline originally held more than 400 residents. Since October, there’s been only one: Schmidt.

Buffalo's Shoreline apartments, around the time they were built about 40 years ago.

photo by: EPA/Library of Congress

Buffalo's Shoreline apartments seen around the time it first opened 40 years ago.

He moved in 10 years ago, after suffering a severe heart attack. Since then, he’s documented his fight against Norstar, the private company that manages the state-built homes; he alleges that the firm essentially allowed the property to deteriorate, then received public funds for a replacement project with half as many units.

The first phase of Shoreline’s demolition and redevelopment began in 2015, after efforts to landmark it for preservation failed. The final phase is scheduled to take place this spring.

But Schmidt has refused to leave his 6th-floor apartment. Norstar says he’s qualified for replacement housing. He first wants an apology from the company for the more than 200 families it has pushed out.

On Thursday night, I talked to John Washington, a Buffalo fair housing advocate. “Norstar sent [Schmidt’s] lawyer another offer to get him out if he admits it was voluntarily relocation,” he told me from inside Schmidt’s apartment. “They want to leave the project with the record saying everyone left voluntarily. They don’t want to look bad.”

Earlier this month after a protest against Norstar’s actions, the company issued a statement, saying: "We are pleased that we can bring people very nice, new affordable housing in the downtown business corridor. We do have to relocate these people to rebuild housing, people will be able to come back, but they do have to qualify under that state's section 42 low income housing regulations. But at this point, all of our residents are income qualified."

Shoreline was designed by Paul Rudolph as part of New York State’s ambitious affordable housing efforts under Ed Logue’s Urban Development Corporation in the early 1970s. His initial vision was grand: a community center, retail, as well as middle- and high-income housing to help subsidize the affordable units. Instead, only a school and two separate stretches of affordable housing (one of which remains intact) were completed. Its architecture reflects its Civil Rights Movement-era ambitions of publicly financed affordable housing—moving past municipal brick towers and towards smaller, more varied developments that sought to create or enhance mixed-use, mixed-income, and mixed-race communities when the private sector would not.

“They’re getting rid of perfectly sturdy, well-designed Paul Rudolph structures and replacing them with plywood firetraps.”

John Schmidt

Instead, it will receive a humiliating end. According to the latest plan for the more conventional townhouse-style apartments replacing it, a sculpture made from Rudolph’s ribbed concrete will stand in a courtyard containing an etched image of his original design for the neighborhood.

But Buffalo’s inability to landmark Shoreline—and the ongoing coverage of Norstar’s handling of the redevelopment—appears to have created a small awakening within the city, Washington says.“Buffalo has a very sad disposition; a lot of people [here are] used to oppression,” he said. “There’s sense you can’t fight City Hall. But this has created a huge amount of awareness.”

I spoke with Schmidt on the phone Wednesday night about his fight, and what it has been like living completely alone in the sprawling housing complex’s final days:

How much longer do you think you have left?

I have 24 hours and my lawyer says I have no grounds for appeal. I’m not leaving until the marshals take me out. A 72-hour notice was delivered at 4 p.m. Monday. They’re supposed to come sometime after 4 p.m. Thursday but they’ll all be getting ready to go home by then so they won’t want to be bothered until Friday morning. I plan on having some of my activist friends there to record it and put online.

So what’s been happening between Norstar and Shoreline residents since we last spoke in 2015?

Phase 2 was supposed to put tenants in from Phase 1 and then Phase 3 would take in relocated tenants from Phase 2. But they eventually decided arbitrarily to combine Phase 2 and 3, and to make this happen they told us we had to get out. People weren’t happy with that. Norstar staged a meeting over at the complex where they were met with a very hostile reception. One councilman said they could use the common council chambers at City Hall since there were so many people who wanted to attend. So they did. This meeting was even more hostile and it was televised.

Ten months passed. Norstar announced their new plan and it was exactly the same as the old plan, except there was an independent relocation coordinator to make sure everyone’s needs were looked after.

“I have no idea where I'm going.”

John Schmidt

Once that was announced, they wanted everyone out after 6 months. Norstar originally wanted everyone out by September but eventually nearly everyone was gone by October. In the end it was just me. It’s been that way for two months.

What happened to the other tenants? Are any homeless?

They’re not homeless, but they’re not happy with their new homes. One is contemplating moving out of her new place because it’s too expensive. Others are in developments that they tried to move out of in the first place when they first came to Shoreline. Some are being relocated into other projects that are slated for depopulation and demolition.

I could locate maybe 10 out of 222. The problem is Norstar is demolishing 400-odd units and replacing them with 200. They’re getting rid of perfectly sturdy, well-designed Paul Rudolph structures and replacing them with plywood fire traps, buildings with no protection. They’re just junk. There’s nothing good about this.

So do you have any other former tenants working with you?

There aren’t many allies. Organizing tenants is like herding cats.

What’s it been like being the only person in Shoreline these last two months?

My apartment has been ransacked. I’ve had five break-ins. I was sitting in the apartment when one guy, an obvious amateur, came in and so I called the cops and they nabbed him.

The real damage was done by someone who must have had a key because there was no evidence of a break-in. You need two keys to get into Shoreline, one at the main electronic door that’s programmed at the office, and then the one at my own door, which showed no signs of jimmying or anything.

They took my TV, DVD player, DVD collection, and a bunch of household items. They trashed the place randomly—not looking for stuff as much as just acting out of malice. They took a garbage bag from the bathroom and put it over my laundry, that’s not something a typical burglar would do. The contents of my closet were pulled onto the floor, too. I also lost some other electronics, so I carry my remaining things. My laptop and hard drives are in my backpack and I never leave home without it.

Clearly, this was a message saying, “We can get to you whenever we want.” It was pure harassment.

Are your services still working?

Pretty much all of the services are constantly being turned off. The water is off now. I’ve lived here for 10 years, but since the date for me to move out by court order has passed suddenly four pipes allegedly broke in two days. The elevator is out of commission today, and the heat never worked to begin with. It was 3 degrees [Fahrenheit] in Buffalo recently and it dropped to 40 degrees in my apartment.

So what’s next for you, do you have a place to stay?

I have no idea where I’m going.

John Schmidt was officially evicted from his apartment on January 12, 2018. His belongings remained inside even after he was forcibly removed from his home.

By: Mark Byrnes, CityLab

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